Book Review: Shakespeare’s Library

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I cracked open the cover of Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells. What happened to Shakespeare’s books – and if he had any – has plagued many a Shakespeare scholar. In fact, it is at the root of the authorship debate. Unfortunately, no definitive answers were provided because the definitive texts have never been found. However, in lieu of answers, Kells provided context and ways of thinking that are crucial to our understanding of Shakespeare and what may have happened to the books he owned.

As a firm Stratfordian, I was disheartened at the start of the book to read that there was an unusually small amount of information known about Shakespeare. Most notably, that little was written about Shakespeare by his contemporaries. I grew fearful that I was reading a book arguing the anti-Stratfordian point of view. I was relieved when Kells revealed his sense of humor regarding the fraudsters that launched the anti-Stratfordian argument. Kells almost seemed personally offended by the various forgeries perpetrated during the early searches for Shakespeare’s documents. Which, he should be, as should all Shakespeare scholars.

Kells’ snarky quips punctuate the information-dense text, making it easy to digest for the casual reader. And, make no mistake, the text is packed full of important information regarding our search for Shakespeare’s documents and our attitude toward books throughout the ages. It was Kells’ explanation of how people of different time periods treated Elizabethan texts that I found to be the most enlightening. It was painful to read at times with my modern bibliophile sensibilities because collector’s were not always kind to Elizabethan books. I actually cried out loud when Kells’ revealed that early collectors would “wash” their books of all signs of previous owners.

Kells clearly understands the importance of historical context to our understanding of Shakespeare and his documents. Once readers are given the full history of the search for Shakespeare’s documents, Kells explores how we understand Shakespeare as a writer. Until we have a clear, honest picture of the writer, we cannot comprehend what his library would have looked like. Kells provides an image of Shakespeare the writer that is brutally honest and critical to the conversation. Is it definitive? Of course not, we will likely never have that. However, Kells gives us an idea to ponder that many, I think, will find enlightening.

I believe Shakespeare’s Library will quickly become a core text in the authorship debate and Shakespeare scholarship as a whole. Kells provides a unique perspective by detailing a history of the documents despite the fact that we don’t physically have them, a difficult task that Kells executes beautifully. This was an entertaining and informative read that every Shakespeare scholar should make sure to have in their own library.

Shakespeare’s Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature goes on sale April 2nd.

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